Erode Venkata Ramasamy (September 17, 1879 – December 24, 1973), affectionately called by his followers as Periyar, Thanthai Periyar or E. V. R., was a businessman, politician, Indian independence and social activist, who started the Self-Respect Movement or the Dravidian Movement and proposed the creation of an independent state called Dravidasthan comprising South India. He is also the founder of the socio-cultural organisation, Dravidar Kazhagam.

Periyar was born in Erode, Madras Presidency to a wealthy family of Kannada speaking Balijas. At a young age, he witnessed numerous incidents of racial, caste and gender discrimination. Periyar married when he was 19, and had a daughter who lived for only 5 months. His first wife, Nagammai, died in 1933. Periyar married for a second time in July 1948. His second wife, Maniammai, continued Periyar’s social work after his death in 1973, but still his thoughts and ideas were being spread by Dravidar Kazhagam.

Periyar joined the Indian National Congress in 1919, but resigned in 1925 when he felt that the party was only serving the interests of the Brahmins. In 1924, Periyar led a non-violent agitation (satyagraha) in Vaikom, Kerala. From 1929 to 1932 toured Malaysia, Europe, and Russia, which had an influence on him. In 1939, Periyar became the head of the Justice Party, and in 1944, he changed its name to Dravidar Kazhagam. The party later split and one group led by C. N. Annadurai formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949. While continuing the Self-Respect Movement, he advocated for an independent Dravida Nadu(Dravidistan).

Periyar propagated the principles of rationalism, self-respect, women’s rights and eradication of caste. He opposed the exploitation and marginalization of the non-Brahmin indigenous Dravidian peoples of South India and the imposition of, what he considered, Indo-Aryan India. His work has greatly revolutionized Tamil society and has significantly removed caste-based discrimination. He is also responsible for bringing new changes to the Tamil alphabet. However, at the same time, Periyar is also held responsible for making controversial statements on the Tamil language, Dalits and Brahmins and for endorsing violence against Brahmins. The citation awarded by the UNESCO described Periyar as “the prophet of the new age, the Socrates of South East Asia, father of social reform movement and arch enemy of ignorance, superstitions, meaningless customs and base manners”.

Early years:

Periyar was born as Erode Venkata Ramasami Naicker on September 17, 1879, in the town of Erode,then a part of the Coimbatore District of the Madras Presidency. Periyar’s father, a rich businessman, was Venkatappa Naicker (or Venkata), and his mother was Chinna Thayammal, alias Muthammal. He had one elder brother named Krishnaswamy and two sisters named Kannamma and Ponnuthoy. He later came to be known as “Periyar” meaning ‘respected one’ or ‘elder’ in Tamil.

In 1929, Periyar announced the deletion of his caste surnameNaicker from his name at the First Provincial Self-Respect Conference of Chenggalpattu. He could speak three Dravidian languages: Kannada, Tamil and Telugu. His mother tongue was Kannada. Periyar attended school for five years after which he joined his father’s trade at the age of 12. He used to listen to Tamil Vaishnavite guruswho gave discourses in his house enjoying his father’s hospitality. At a young age, he began questioning the apparent contradictions in theHindu mythological stories which he opined to be lies spread by the Indo-Aryan race. As Periyar grew, he felt that people used religion only as a mask to deceive innocent people and therefore took it as one of his duties in life to warn people against superstitions and priests.

Periyar’s father arranged for his wedding when he was nineteen. The bride, Nagammai was only thirteen. It was not, altogether, an arranged marriage because Periyar and Nagammai had known each other and were already in love with each other. Nagammai actively supported her husband in his later public activities and agitations. Two years after their marriage, a girl child was born to them. However, this child lived only for five months. The couple had no more children.

Kasi Pilgrimage Incident:

In 1904, Periyar went on a pilgrimage to Kasi to worship in the revered Siva temple of Kashi Vishwanath. Though regarded as one of the holiest sites of Hinduism, he witnessed immoral activities, begging, and floating dead bodies. His frustrations extended to functional Hinduism in general when he experience what he called Brahmanic exploitation.

However, one particular incident in Kasi had a profound impact on Periyar’s ideology and future work. At worship site there were free meals offered to guests. To Periyar’s shock, he was refused meals at choultries which exclusively fed Brahmins. Due to extreme hunger, Periyar felt compelled to enter one of the choultries disguised as a Brahmin with a sacred thread on his bare chest, but was betrayed by his moustache. The gatekeeper at the temple concluded that Periyar was not a Brahmin as Brahmins were not permitted by the Hindu shastras to have moustaches. He not only prevented Periyar’s entry but also pushed him rudely to the street.

As his hunger became intolerable, Periyar was forced to feed on leftovers from the streets. Around this time, he realized that the choultry which had refused him entry was built by a wealthy non-Brahmin from South India. This discriminatory attitude dealt a blow to Periyar’s regard for Hinduism, for the events he had witnessed at Kasi were completely different from the picture of Kasi he had in mind, as a holy place which welcomed all. Ramasami was a theist till his visit to Kasi, after which his views changed and he became an atheist.

Member of Congress Party (1919-1925):

Periyar Ramaswamy joined the Indian National Congress in 1919 after quitting his business and resigning from public posts. He held the chairmanship of Erode Municipality and wholeheartedly undertook constructive programs spreading the use of Khadi, picketing toddy shops, boycotting shops selling foreign cloth, and eradicating untouchability. In 1921, Periyar courted imprisonment for picketing toddy shops in Erode. When his wife as well as his sister joined the agitation, it gained momentum, and the administration was forced to come to a compromise. He was again arrested during the Non-Cooperation movement and the Temperance movement. In 1922, Periyar was elected the President of the Madras Presidency Congress Committee during theTirupur session where he advocated strongly for reservation in government jobs and education. His attempts were defeated in the Congress party due to a strong presence of discrimination and indifference. He later quit the party on those grounds in 1925.

Vaikom Satyagraha (1924-1925):

In Vaikom, a small town in Kerala state, then Travancore, there were strict laws of untouchability in and around the temple area. Dalits, also known as Harijans were not allowed into the close streets around and leading to the temple, let alone inside it. Anti-caste feelings were growing and in 1924 Vaikom was chosen as a suitable place for an organized Satyagraha, passive resistance campaign as practiced by Gandhi. Under his guidance a movement had already begun with the aim of giving all castes the right to enter the temples. Thus, agitations and demonstrations took place. On April 14, Periyar and his wife Nagamma arrived in Vaikom. They were met with arrest and imprisoned for participation. In spite of Gandhi’s objection to non-Keralites and non-Hindus taking part, Periyar and his followers continued to give support to the movement till it was withdrawn. He received the title Vikkom Veeran, mostly given by his Tamil followers who participated in the Satyagraha. However, a considerable section of intellectuals feel that Periyar’s participation in the Indian independence movement and his contribution in the Vaikom Satyagraha have been highly exaggerated.

The way in which the Vaikom Satyagraha events have been recorded provides a clue to the image of the respective oraganizers. In an article entitle Gandhi and Ambedkar, A Study in Leadership, Eleanor Zelliot relates the ‘Vaikom Satyagraha’ including Gandhi’s negotiations with the temple authorities in relation to the event. Furthermore, the editor of Periyar’s Thoughts states that Brahmins purposely suppressed news about Periyar’s participation. A leading Congress magazine Young India in its extensive reports on Vaikom never mentions Periyar.

Self-Respect Movement:

Periyar and his followers campaigned constantly to influence and pressurize the government to take measures for removing social inequality even while other nationalist forerunners focused on the struggle for political independence. The Self-Respect Movement was described from the beginning, as “dedicated to the goal of giving non-Brahmins a sense of pride based on their Dravidian past”.

In 1952, the Periyar Self-Respect Movement Institution was registered with a list of objectives of the institution from which may be quoted as

for the diffusion of useful knowledge of political education; to allow people to live a life of freedom from slavery to anything against reason and self respect; to do away with needless customs, meaningless ceremonies, and blind superstitious beliefs in society; to put an end to the present social system in which caste, religion, community and traditional occupations based on the accident of birth, have chained the mass of the people and created “superior” and “inferior” classes… and to give people equal rights; to completely eradicate untouchability and to establish a united society based on brother/sisterhood; to give equal rights to women; to prevent child marriages and marriages based on law favorable to one sect, to conduct and encourage love marriages, widow marriages, inter caste and inter-religious marriages and to have the marriages registered under the Civil Law; and to establish and maintain homes for orphans and widows and to run educational institutions.

Propagation of the philosophy of self respect became the full-time activity of Periyar since 1925. A Tamil weekly Kudi Arasu started in 1925, while the English journal Revolt started in 1928 carried on the propaganda among the English educated people. The Self-Respect Movement began to grow fast and received the sympathy of the heads of the Justice Party from the beginning. In May 1929, a conference of Self-Respect Volunteers was held at Pattukkotai under the presidency of S. Guruswami. K.V. Alagiriswami took charge as the head of the volunteer band. Conferences followed in succession throughout the Tamil districts of the former Madras Presidency. A training school in Self-Respect was opened at Erode, the home town of Periyar. The object was not just to introduce social reform but to bring about a social revolution to foster a new spirit and build a new society.

International travel (1929-1932):

Between 1929 and 1935, under the strain of World Depression, political thinking worldwide received a jolt from the spread of international communism. Indian political parties, movements and considerable sections of leadership were also affected by inter-continentalideologies. The Self-Respect Movement also came under the influence of the leftist philosophies and institutions. Periyar after establishing the Self-Respect Movement as an independent institution began to look for strengthening it politically and socially. And for this, he undertook a study of the history and politics of different countries combined with personal observation of the systems at work.

Periyar toured Malaysia for a month from December 1929 to January 1930 to propagate the self-respect philosophy. Embarking on his journey from Nagapattinam with his wife Nagammal and his followers, Periyar was received by 50,000 Tamil Malaysians in Penang. During the same month, he inaugurated the Tamils Conference convened by the Tamils Reformatory Sangam in Ipoh and then went to Singapore. In December 1931 he undertook a tour of Europe, accompanied by S. Ramanathan and Erode Ramu, to personally acquaint himself with theirpolitical systems, social movements, way of life, economic and social progress and administration of public bodies. He visited Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Germany, England, Spain, France and Portugal, staying in Russia for three months. On his return journey he halted at Ceylon and returned to India in November 1932.

The tour shaped the political ideology of Periyar to achieve the social concept of Self-Respect. The communist system obtained in Russia appealed to him as appropriately suited to deal with the social ills of the country. Thus, on socio-economic issues Periyar was Marxist, but he did not advocate for abolishing private ownership. Immediately after his return, Periyar in alliance with the enthusiastic communist M. Singaravelu Chettiar, began to work out a socio-political scheme incorporating socialist and self-respect ideals. This marks a crucial stage of development in the Self-Respect Movement which got politicized and found its compatibility in Tamil Nadu.

Opposition to Hindi:

In 1937, when Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari became the Chief Minister of Madras state, he introduced Hindi as a compulsory language of study in schools, igniting thereby a series of anti-Hindi agitations. Tamil nationalists, the Justice Party under Sir A. T. Panneerselvam, and Periyar organized anti-Hindi protests in 1938 which ended with numerous arrests by the Rajaji government.

During the same year, the slogan “Tamil Nadu for Tamilians” was first raised by Periyar in protest against the introduction of Hindi in schools. He explained that the introduction of Hindi was a dangerous mechanism used to the infiltration of Aryans on Dravidian culture. He reasoned that the adoption of Hindi would make Tamils subordinate to Hindi-speaking North Indians. Periyar explained that Hindi would not only halt the progress of Tamilians but would completely destroy their culture and nullify the progressive ideas that had been successfully inculcated through Tamil in the recent decades.

Cutting across party lines, South Indian politicians rallied together in their opposition to Hindi There were recurrent anti-Hindi agitations in 1948, 1952 and 1965.

As President of the Justice Party (1938-1944):

A political party known as the South Indian Libertarian Federation (commonly referred to as Justice party) was founded in 1916, principally to oppose the economic and political power of the Brahmin jati groups. The party’s goal was to render social justice to non-Brahmin groups. In order to gain the support of the masses, non-Brahmin politicians began propagating an ideology of equality among non-Brahmin jati groups. Brahmanical priesthood and Sanskritic social class-value hierarchy were blamed for the existence of inequalities among non-Brahmin jatigroups.

In 1937, when the government required that Hindi be taught in the school system, Periyar organized opposition through the Justice Party to this policy. After 1937, the Dravidian movement derived considerable support from the student community. In later years, opposition to Hindi played a big role in the politics of Tamil Nadu. The fear of the Hindi language had its origin in the conflict between Brahmins and non-Brahmins. To the Tamils, acceptance of Hindi in the school system was a form of bondage. When the Justice Party weakened in the absence of mass support, Periyar took over the leadership of the party after being jailed for opposing Hindi in 1939. Under his tutelage the party prospered, but the party’s conservative members, most of whom were rich and educated, withdrew from active participation.

Formation of the Dravidar Kazhagam:

At a rally in 1944, Periyar, in his capacity as the leader of the Justice Party, declared that the party would henceforth be known as the Dravidar Kazhagam or “Dravidian Association”. However, a few who disagreed with Periyar started a splinter group claiming to be the original Justice Party. This party was led by veteran Justice Party leader P. T. Rajan and survived till 1957.

The Dravidar Kazhagam came to be well known amongst the urban communities and students. Villages were influenced by its message. Hindi, and ceremonies that had become associated with Brahmanical priesthood, were identified as alien symbols that should be eliminated from Tamil culture. Brahmins, who were regarded as the guardians of such symbols, came under verbal attack. From 1949 onwards, theDravidar Kazhagam intensified social reformist work and put forward the fact that the superstitions were the cause for the degeneration of Dravidians. The Dravidar Kazhagam vehemently fought for the abolition of untouchability amongst the Dalits. It also focused its attention on the liberation of women, women’s education, willing marriage, widow marriage, orphanages and mercy homes.

Split with Annadurai:

In 1949, Periyar’s chief lieutenant, Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai established a separate association called the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), or (Dravidian Advancement Association). This was due to differences between the two where Periyar advocated a separate independent Dravidian or Tamil state, while Annadurai compromised with the Delhi government combined with claims of increased state independence. Periyar was convinced that individuals and movements that undertake the task of eradicating the social evils in the Indian sub-continent have to pursue the goal with devotion and dedication without deviating from the path and with uncompromising zeal. Thus, if they contest elections aiming to assume political power, they would lose vigor and sense of purpose. But amongst his followers, there were those who had a different view. They wanted to enter into politics and have a share in running the government. They were looking for an opportunity to part with Periyar. Thus, when Periyar got married to Maniammai on July 9, 1948, they quit the Dravidar Kazhagam stating that Periyar set a bad example by marrying a young woman in his old age – he was 70 and she 30. Those who parted company with Periyar also joined the DMK. Though the DMK split from the Dravidar Kazhagam, the organization made efforts to carry on Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement to the villagers and the urban students. The DMK advocated the thesis that the Tamil language was much richer than Sanskrit and Hindi in content, and thus was a key which opened the door to subjects to be learned. The Dravidar Kazhagam continued to counter Brahminism, Indo-Aryan propaganda, and uphold the Dravidians’ right of self-determination.

Later years:

In 1956, despite warnings from P. Kakkan, the President of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, Periyar organized a procession to the Marina in order to burn pictures of the Hindu God Rama. Periyar was subsequently arrested and confined to prison.

The activities of Periyar continued when he went to Bangalore in 1958 to participate in the All India Official Language Conference. There he stressed the need to retain English as the Union Official Language instead of Hindi. Five years later, Periyar travelled to North India to advocate on the eradication of the caste system. Nearing Periyar’s last years, an award was given to him by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and it was presented to him by the Union Education Minister, Triguna Sen in Madras (Chennai) on June 27, 1970. In his last meeting at Thiagaraya Nagar, Chennai on December 19, 1973, Periyar declared a call for action to gain social equality and a dignified way of life. On December 24, 1973 Periyar died at the age of 94.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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